Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process

I’m pleased to share this guest post by Andy Molinsky with readers.  I think his book provides a useful new approach to the vexing problem of students’ inability to make meaning of their time abroad.

Few people would deny the value in gaining international experience.  But it’s not the experience itself that matters most; it’s what you make of it. I know this first hand from my own experience studying as a foreign-exchange student in Madrid many years ago.  I had a fun experience, don’t get me wrong, but I certainly did not get the most out of my foreign cultural immersion.  It was challenging to master the language, but even more challenging to interpret and understand the culture.

Fast forward twenty years later, and I am now a professor helping foreign students grapple with very similar issues. Take, for example, a situation that many of my foreign-born students here at Brandeis struggle with: promoting themselves during an informal networking event. Of course, this isn’t the easiest of situations for many of us.  But imagine what it’s like if you come from a culture where modesty is a core cultural value and the way you need to promote yourself in the US runs counter to your deeply held cultural values and beliefs. For example, these are the words of a Nigerian-born student describing her experience trying to promote herself during an informal networking event in the US:

“It felt very uncomfortable and artificial to be expected to participate in an informal conversation with this senior person. Thoughts going through my head were ‘What can I possibly have to say to this man who has much more experience than I do?’  The values that were instilled in me were to “speak when spoken to” and “children are to be seen and not heard”

From my work interviewing and working with hundreds of students and professionals from a wide range of different countries and cultures, I find that it is very common to feel awkward, inauthentic, or even resentful when trying to adapt behavior overseas. And when you have such strong internal reactions to adapting cultural behavior, your external performance can suffer and you can get far less out of your foreign cultural experience than you intended.

To help solve this problem, I’ve written a new book to help students and professionals from any country and culture adapt more successfully during their time abroad. The book is called “Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process.”  In the book, I offer concrete tools to help foreign-born students and professionals successfully adapt behavior to new cultural contexts while staying authentic and grounded in their own natural styles.

There is no question that study abroad has become increasingly important around the world.  But are we providing students with the tools they need to get the most out of their experiences?  My hope is that Global Dexterity can be a useful tool for helping today’s students get far more out of their experiences living, studying, and working abroad than I was ever able to.
Andy Molinsky is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Psychology at Brandeis University. Follow Andy on twitter at @andymolinsky.

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